Friday, December 25, 2009

Chief Miller's Last Shift

At about 9 o’clock this morning, a big Ventura Police Department SUV pulled up in front of my house on Anacapa Street in Midtown. I hope it didn’t scare my neighbors into thinking something had gone awry on Christmas morning. In fact, it was just Police Chief Pat Miller picking me up. Today was Pat’s last day on the job, and – along with a reporter and a photographer from the Star – I decided to ride along with him on his last shift.

The fact that Pat was working the beat on Christmas Day on the last day of his career is a testament to Pat and to the humane approach he has instilled in the Police Department. By longstanding tradition, the senior brass at Ventura PD work shifts on Christmas Day so that the younger officers can celebrate Christmas with their families. Today, Pat was working half a shift – 6 a.m to noon. – before heading home to be with his family. (Ventura PD officers work 12-hour shifts, 6 am to 6 pm or vice versa.)

It was mostly a quiet morning, interrupted only by a few typical domestic disputes. (“They don’t see each other all year long,” Pat joked, “and then they wake up on Christmas morning and realize they don’t like each other.”) Pat was assigned to the citywide beat, which meant he roamed all the way from Ventura Avenue to Victoria Avenue. It was clear that almost every street, almost every block, held some memory for him – good ones and bad ones.

Like every cop on every shift, he drove down Olive Street on the Avenue to figuratively tip his cap to the heroic Dee Dowell, who was killed there in 1978 -- the first Ventura police officer ever to be killed in the line of duty. And driving past De Anza Middle School reminded him of the time he spent all day with a distraught 13-year-old who finally revealed that she’d been molested by a relative; 15 years later, the girl – now a woman – called up Pat Miller to thank him, because he had been the person who helped her face her demons and turn her life around.

Pat was clearly born to be a cop. His family moved to Ventura when he was in high school, and at the age of 21 he went to work as a police officer in San Fernando, where his father was also a cop. In 1981, he switched over to the Ventura Police Department and he’s been here ever since.

The low-key older guy driving around in the police SUV talks calmly but with authority about his life and his career and his police work. Much of what he says is sobering. There was his first day on the job in San Fernando, when a fellow officer was killed and he worked the crime scene all day. There was the time when he knocked on a door and, for no particular reason, stepped a few inches to one side. The guy inside had a gun and shot right through the door; if Pat hadn’t moved, he’d have been hit and maybe killed. There was his recollection that the guy who sat in front of him and the guy who sat behind him in the police academy both were killed in the line of duty. And then there was his former partner Mark Riddering, who battled Lou Gehrig’s Disease for 13 years before finally passing away.

All these stories are told in a very matter-of-fact tone as the SUV tools around Ventura, interspersed with the occasional moment when his street antenna went on the alert – like the moment near my office at Main and the Avenue, when two guys scrambled out of a beat-up old car and left quickly because they apparently didn’t want to be seen by a cop.

Like all cops, Pat is always on the beat and loves chasing bad guys best. I can recall a time three or four years ago when I was waiting to meet him and he never showed up. It turned out that he had chased a bad guy all the way to Oxnard, then ran after him – Pat in his street clothes – only to be bitten by Oxnard PD’s K-9 dog. But that’s Pat. He always wants to be in the middle of the action.

And like a lot of cops, Pat has a great dark sense of humor. Always blunt, he is never funnier than when he is “telling it like it is,” even when that’s not the most politic thing to do. A few months ago, at a City Council meeting, after we had spent many hours hashing out consecutive items about regulating massage parlors, dealing with medical marijuana dispensaries, and considering whether to let homeless people catch some winks in their automobiles under highly supervised conditions, Pat broke the council chamber up – at midnight or so – by saying into the microphone, “Sure, come to Ventura – get a massage, smoke a joint, and sleep in your car!” So far our tourist bureau hasn’t picked up on Pat’s slogan.

To me, however, there’s far more to Pat than the passionate beat cop and the police officer with the dry sense of humor. After all, here’s a guy who’s a member of the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council; he teaches homeland security courses at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. Beyond that, of course, there are three other things about Pat which – combined with the beat cop’s passion – make Chief Miller one of the most remarkable people I have ever met.

The first is his passion for preventing crimes as well as solving them. Nobody has been more forceful in arguing for crime prevention programs that Pat has. Gang prevention programs, police officers in the schools, after-school programs – Pat has advocated for all of these ideas and more, often when it meant taking resources away from his men on the beat. That’s because he has always believed in “community policing”. Our cops are not an occupying force that drives by in armored vehicles. They are people you know, people you trust, people who help you and your neighbors and your kids. It’s a lot better for everybody – including the police -- if the teenager at risk stays out of trouble in the first place. Pat knows that you have to be both a cop and a social worker to keep Ventura safe.

The second is the way his leadership style focuses on results. Pat always says that if you can’t say what you’re after in 20 words or less, you’ve failed. He usually succeeds, and this no-nonsense style has helped him set clear goals and motivate his officers to achieve them. In doing this, he focuses – as police departments so often do these days – on tangible and measurable results. His proudest accomplishment is simply that crime has gone down while he’s been chief. But it takes meeting many other statistical targest to meet that larger goal.

For example, under Pat’s leadership, the Ventura PD set a goal of responding to major calls within 5 minutes 90% of the time. When he set the goal, the department hit the 5-minute response time 50% of the time. Now, with no appreciable increase in resources, it’s 80%. Pat may be a beat cop at heart, but he understands how to use information and numbers and goals to get the job done, and I admire that.

The last thing is just his sheer determination. There’s no brick wall this guy won’t walk through when he’s determined to do something. (When I asked him whether seeing a fellow officer killed his first day on the job made him angry, he answered: “No, just more determined.”) Pat played a major role in our attempt to pass a tax increase in 2006 to fund public safety because he had more passion and more determination than anybody else. With our Fire Chief, Mike Lavery, Pat made more than 300 presentations about the sales tax. And he knew how to boil it down to 20 words or less: A nickel on every $20 purchase to stay safe. We didn’t win – but we got 62% of the vote and I think people are much more attuned to public safety in Ventura than ever before.

About 10:45, we responded to an accident at Five Points. Not exactly a fender-bender, either; an SUV slammed into a sedan, the damage on the right side of the sedan is pretty nasty, and ambulances are required for both the driver of the SUV, who can’t turn his head, and the passenger in the sedan, who looks like she hurt her shoulder. Almost first on the scene, Pat goes to both injured folks, puts his arm on them, makes sure their injuries are not extremely serious. Once the paramedics arrive, he backs off and lets other do their job. There he is, the chief of police, one hour away from retirement, standing on Main Street directing traffic as the ambulances pull away.

Back at the police station on Dowell Drive (yes, named for Dee Dowell), Pat greets his daughter Nicole, a veteran dispatcher who’s going on duty at noon. (She had to wait for him to retire to be rehired, since a department head can’t hire relatives.) At just before noon, Nicole puts on her headset, and Pat heads out to the SUV with Ken Corney, his longtime assistant chief, who will take over as chief as soon as Pat steps down.

Pat sits down in the driver’s seat of the SUV, picks up the microphone and says, “151 – 10-C – 10-7.” 151 is his badge number. 10-C means he’s the chief. 10-7 means he’s checked out.

He stands up and Ken Corney grabs the mike. “199 – 10-C – 10-8.” 199 is Ken’s bad number. 10-8 means he’s ready to go. And 10-C means that Ken, not Pat, is now the chief.

Which seems fine with Pat. He shakes everybody’s hand, thanks them all, cracks a joke, and drives away, ready for some new challenge in life.

Thanks, Pat. It’s been a privilege to ride with you – not just today, but for the last 5 years.

You can download Pat's "final 10-7" here.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bill. I just read your fine tribute to Chief Pat Miller. I hope everyone reads it. We have a terrific police force! A couple of months ago, at around 1 a.m. my dog ran to the door barking and I went to my "secret" window to see what was up. All I could see were two dark shadows carrying flashlights. Then, there was a knock on my door. I called out..."who is it?" They responded, "Ventura P.D." I asked, "Are you sure you have the right house?" And they responded, "Yes, ma'am, we noticed that your garage door is open and wanted to be sure everything is alright". Needless to say, I promptly wrote a thank you note to Chief Miller to forward to his guys. J. Ward


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